Vocal improvisation: How to take your first steps into the unknown

Vocal coach and jazz virtuoso ANTONIO DE LILLIS explains how singers can get started with the practice of improvisation.

Improvisation benefits a singer in many ways: it develops technical skills, intonation, timing and phrasing and stimulates creativity and problem-solving abilities (read my article on why singers should improvise HERE). Last but not least it has a positive impact on performance anxiety!

My experience with teaching improvisation though, suggests that it is not widespread in singers’ daily practice, surely not as much as other aspect of one’s vocal studies. Why?

First of all, despite the fact improvisation is currently included in the syllabus of some singing exams (e.g. Trinity), the literature on the subject is still very limited. Those who want to learn may struggle to find suitable material.

Secondly, when singers approach improvisation for the first time, they often experience a big “fear of the unknown”. The simple thought of improvising make one feel intimidated – and you know how judgemental singers can be with themselves! Inexorably, our harsh “inner-judge” arises, and it starts telling us that we are rubbish.

What to do then? Well, here are some tips you might find useful.

Improvisation dos and don’ts

#1. If you want to learn how to improvise, just… do it! Practice will help you get better and the more you practise the more you’ll be keen to improvise.

#2. Start with “free form” structured exercises, like the ones described further below: no rules at all, no worries about chords, time signature, scales, intervals etc. You can express yourself freely, without the fear of making mistakes, because there are no mistakes to make! Isn’t that cool?

#3. Use improvisation as a warm-up. You can incorporate slides, lip trills, short notes, staccatos, hisses, long notes, etc. Then you’ll have hit two pigeons with one stone!

#4. Do not overthink! Don’t worry about what to do, what sound to make or notes to sing. Let your imagination work. Especially at a beginner stage, you shouldn’t judge the result of your vocal impro: just appreciate it and be proud of your efforts.

#5. Remember that the true value of improvisation lies in the process, not in the end result.

Let’s get started! A couple of “free form” exercises

Exercise #1 – Just do it!

This exercise has been inspired by Bobby McFerrin’s workshops. McFerrin is one of the finest improvisers of all times! You won’t need instruments or backing tracks, just sing a cappella, like the example below.

 

Start singing a long note, in your comfortable range, on any sound or syllable. Hold it for a few seconds and then improvise a simple musical pattern. Keep singing it for a while and gradually introduce some changes in dynamics, colour, sound or rhythm. Remember there is no right or wrong, you just have to focus on one thing: how long can you last until you feel bored? Can you carry on for 20 seconds? If so, well done! You’ve just produced your very first vocal impro!

Next step will be improvising not only for 20, but for 30 seconds, then 40, an so on. Bobby can carry on for 10 minutes and more!

Exercise #2 – Dr. One

For this exercise you will need a keyboard (don’t worry, you don’t need to be a piano player). Select a sound that can sustain a long note (such as organ or flute), choose one note in your comfortable range, press the key and hold it: the resulting long sound that you’ll hear it’s called a “drone”. Begin humming along this sustained pitch. Hold it for a while and then try to move up or down, stopping on adjacent notes. It doesn’t have to be consonant: dissonances are more than welcome! After a while, experiment with different vowels or timbres. Play around musical features, using various note lengths, crescendo/decrescendo, rhythms. You can also use arpeggios or other patterns on a scale. Here is an example for you.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for my next article, where I’ll introduce you to more techniques and exercises, specific to different genres.

 

MAIN IMAGE: Bobby McFerrin, a master of vocal improvisation.

 

Italian-born singer, songwriter and singing teacher Antonio De Lillis started studying music and guitar in 1991. He then studied singing at some of the most prestigious music schools in Italy (C.P.M. in Milan, Università della Musica and Saint Louis College of Music in Rome). In 2011 he graduated with a first class degree in jazz arranging and performance at Licinio Refice Conservatoire of Music (Frosinone, Italy). In February 2018, he gained a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Professional Practice (specialism Vocal Pedagogy) from Cardiff Metropolitan University, in conjunction with Voice Workshop Ltd. Antonio sings jazz and pop with several bands performing on television, radio and at numerous gigs, concerts and festivals. He has released four albums, one of which as a band leader. Antonio has been teaching singing since 2000, in different academies, schools, charities and colleges in Rome and London. He regularly leads workshops on vocal technique, jazz singing and vocal improvisation.